When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

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  1. Q: When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?
    A: Most visual art works don’t really start off by being obscene images and then stop being so at some point. But I expect that was not really the question’s intent! So I’d say the following:
    Whether or not a certain image is perceived as such is strongly influenced by culture, context, intention, personal tastes, and, basically how one defines and understands what is obscene.
    What is perfectly acceptable and attractive to A may be abhorrent to B.
    One exception is when art intentionally depicts the abuse or exploitation, presents a voyeuristic display of those who cannot meaningfully consent, for example, children. As I write this, I recognize that it is my sensibility, marked by the times we live in. After all exploiting children was pretty commonplace before the industrial revolution.

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  2. Obscene equals offensive.
    There are true works of art in a classical sense that are considered offensive/obscene. One man did a beautiful painting of the vile blood libel. The offensive mature is what MAKES it obscene … and there is no sex involved.

    There are others who are upset at “cultural appropriation”. It is art. It reflects the style. But some find the idea of “going outside your lane” offensive, so ban it.

    I bring up these cases to show that offensive/obscene doesn’t have to involve explicit sex or violence, just violate local tribal morality.

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  3. Well, some works of art are obscene images, or contain them, or (as in the case of written work) create them in our minds.
    They become art when they convey something more than just the obscene images. They’re conveyed with an artistic purpose, as they’re sometimes conveyed for a scientific or anthropological purpose.
    We’re pretty clear about what scientific and anthropological purposes are. We’re less clear about what artistic purposes are. They’re harder to nail down and they’re also more controversial.
    An artistic purpose could be to convey an intellectual and emotional challenge or conundrum, or a complex of emotion, cognition, and sensation in the most vivid and skilful ways the artist can muster. It could be other things. In any case, it’s a purpose that consists of more than just the arousal of a hormonally triggered biological response. That’s generally considered too base to qualify as artistic.
    Tough word though, that “generally.”
    It won’t do to just say, “Art is in the eye of the beholder” and let everyone decide for themselves. There are actual laws that exempt certain works from a charge of illegal pornography on the grounds that they have “artistic merit.” So you’d think there’s some kind of objective yardstick for that.
    In reality, they’re decided on by judges and juries in law courts on a case-by-case basis. Expert witnesses are called on both sides. One pronounces: “In my expert opinion, this work has artistic merit.” Another says, “With all due respect to my expert colleague and the court, it has as much artistic merit as a pile of dog poop.” The first one ripostes, “Dog poop can have artistic merit, it’s all in the context, presentation, and the message, as is the case in the work before us.”
    A concept called “community standards” is brought to bear. There are lots of communities. They have different standards. Jurisdictional boundaries coincide only roughly with community boundaries, if at all.
    Works are banned as obscene with no “redeeming qualities” in some jurisdictions, but not in others. Bookstores and art galleries refuse to display some, but not others. School boards refuse to teach some, but not others. Parents allow their kids to look at some, but not others. TV content advisory messages say “…may be offensive to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.”
    Everybody is offended by something. Everybody is offended when the stuff they like is called offensive.
    In short, it’s a mess. No offence meant to dogs and their poop. Viewer discretion is belatedly advised.

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  4. I guess I would have to see the work of art to really answer this, but if it’s obscene I definitely don’t want to. The few I have seen was enough! This could just go into that age old question as to what is art. It could be either really bad or very well executed, but it would still be art. I saw a drawing by Rembrandt once of a monk having sex with someone under a tree. That was many years ago. I suppose that drawing is still art the same as it was when I first saw it. The fact is it told a little story about an age old problem with men depriving themselves. So is it art or obscene?

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

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  5. Good morning Graham. This is a question that should be asked of curators and gallery owners.
    At best we might consider there are restrictive boundary breaking artists who like to see just how far they can push acceptability, or even artists who like to reflect the depth of human depravity.
    But perhaps I’m giving the artists who provide such works too much credibility and they just produce whatever sells or grabs attention to their presence.
    Love and beauty; like truth do not, apparently, have a universal standard.
    I really don’t like Monday mornings, there just isn’t enough tea to dilute them.

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  6. Oh Graham, you know me. Off to the dictionary! Let’s define “obscene” before we start pontificating. Here’s Merriam-Webster:
    1 : disgusting to the senses : REPULSIVE
    2a : abhorrent to morality or virtue, specifically : designed to incite to lust or depravity… the dance often becomes flagrantly obscene and definitely provocative …— Margaret Mead b : containing or being language regarded as taboo in polite usage obscene lyrics, obscene literature c : repulsive by reason of crass disregard of moral or ethical principles, an obscene misuse of power d : so excessive as to be offensive obscene wealth, obscene waste
    Well, gosh! By these definitions, any work at all could be obscene if the viewer found it so. All obscenity requires is that someone finds the art repulsive, or incredibly excessive, or provocative. And I think it is extremely likely that, on this wide world, we could find someone who would judge every single work of art in this way if we were to try hard enough.
    This leads me back to my general conclusions about art judgments – they are all accurate, all valid. If someone looks at an artwork and calls it ugly, they’re correct. Likewise if they term it beautiful, or repulsive, or stunning, or meaningful, or mysterious or shallow or stupid or whatever else. All correct. We ask academicians and critics to support their views, but when it comes down to it, we may either agree with them or not. Viewing art is a highly emotional exercise – just like creating it.
    Every artwork is potentially obscene – and potentially a masterpiece. Depends on who is doing the looking.
    Thanks as always, for the compliment of the A2A.

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  7. Personally decide what you think is obscene, which images are obscene according to your definition, and then decide if you and the artists feel the same. In other words, you should not automatically follow the river over the falls. All approaches to art should be personal and not reflect the ideas of others. Only facts!

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  8. I really enjoy your questions… they make me think. I guess when societal norms change. When society decides that something has moved from the realm of the obscene to the realm of the acceptable, that would also affect the art world. Of course there is always the issue of personal morality/ethics, and as art is a very subjective milieu, there are some images that may never make the transition from obscene to accepted in the eyes of the individual. Of course a question like this delves into many deeper issues about a society as a whole.

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  10. Hi Bud, a cool question. In order to answer that wisely? We need to set aside . . . The ‘blind leading the blind’ (indoctrinated sheets of rules) I guess…
    I will toss my understandings (some of them anyhow) . . . no more rules . . . just ‘understanding’ / ‘intuition’ / and non-indoctrinated ‘gut sniff’ / I’d call it wisdom, but for sure this answer would ‘get collapsed’ by golly.
    Let’s look at ‘music to the ears’ first. Music can honey bee ‘Love’ to one, and grandma ‘breaking the record’ in front of your face . . . an telling you to ‘toss that in the trash? Yup
    And so? I am going to just do a ‘test drive’ with “Love” for this answer. The ole ‘one man’s medicine is another man’s poison deal. (a sensitive bracket for ‘cubby’ because cubby thinks? ‘Music Speaks louder than words) . . . too… oh My.
    I also am going to use a touch of ‘the most widely sold book in all of the ‘Big Blue Marble . . . two too toot. ‘the good book’ . . . K’
    The simple story . . . Makeda (Queen of Sheba) gave Solomon ‘much much gold’ and ? had a baby. Obscene art? I say, just ‘hey google that baby’!
    But first lets look at a Native view that also is well known of.
    Natives? (they didn’t speakn’ de inglish) – The Males parents often purchased a ‘bride’ by paying dowry to the father of the ‘bride to bee’? nice expensive gifts. too (buy a ‘for sale bride? Hay Google eyes . . .)
    Good book again . . . Abram (the forefather of Hebrews) paid also the father of Rebecca for them to ‘consummate ‘ their marriage in Sarah’s tent. BOOM (with witness’s around the tent) . . . “listening” . . . Yup
    Now, Let’s go with the ‘wisest (mortal man) recorded in it. (Sully) – Well and so . . . Solomon is then wiser than anyone human . . . (some don’t agree, and that’s part of the ‘flaw’ of ‘golden rules’) . . . tho
    Art, quite beautiful art for me . . .

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

    So? for me? I will honey bee standing drinking a cup of cowboy coffee, and smoking a Marb 72 (the short cigarette) and appreciating ‘tru art’ instead of sum buddies stupid ‘rule book’

    So Graham? You spank the keyboard . . . I’ll do the ‘drums’ this time . . . let’s play a song . . . HOW (Indian talk) did I do? Thanks for the request again bud . . . have a great day . . . from ‘the cub’

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

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  11. When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?
    I think the answer is: “It depends.”
    If one leans toward prudishness, certain works of art by Michelangelo, Goya, Picasso and other major artists may seem “obscene.”
    If one is more open-minded about such things, high-quality paintings and photographs of sex organs may be considered to be “fine art.”
    As with beauty, much depends on the eye of the beholder.
    Personally, I don’t see any problem with porn for the sake of porn, as long as everyone involved is an adult and there is no coercion, and I certainly don’t have any qualms about the more artistic forms of pornography.
    But I must admit that, being a heterosexual male, I am a much more interested in art related to the female body than the male.
    So, again, much depends on the eye of the beholder.

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  12. I’m not so sure that a grading effort based on popular polling is the way to go on this, although I’m sure that quite a few people would rely on such an approach. Like taking some image and having the most answers that are similar carry the day. It would be very democratic, but I ’m pretty sure it would only reflect a cultural norm, and that’s going to shift wildly from one area to another.
    So, without getting into the LEGAL terms, it’s whatever you feel is obscene. There! That’s definitive, eh? Thanks for asking me.

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  13. This question is somewhat awkwardly phrased. It seems to imply that any and all visual works of art start out as obscene images, but a few manage to achieve something more. I’m confident that the questioner did not intend this.
    Question: How does one determine that a visual image (a drawing or photograph or film) of a sexual nature is a legitimate work of art rather than pornography? If a given image is indeed declared a work of art, does that mean that it is not obscene (or are there obscene works of art)?
    Answer: It’s difficult to imagine any rule or algorithm that a person might apply to a particular image of a sexual nature in order to determine that it is a pornographic image (obscene) or an erotic or artistic image (not obscene). This is particularly puzzling when one believes that the response of the viewer when confronted with the image is irrelevant to determining what type of image it is. Whether or not the viewer is sexually aroused by viewing a given image is clearly an unreliable guide to what’s obscene—some people get turned on by photos of inanimate objects such as high heel women’s shoes. But if one sets aside the viewer’s response, there just doesn’t seem to be any inherently obscene images (even photos or drawings of human sexual organs—such as one might find in a medical textbook—are no different from many of the images found on internet pornography sites). So if the subject or object pictured in the image doesn’t determine its obscenity and if the response of viewers to the image will vary greatly, differentiating erotic art (Mapplethorpe’s photography) from pornography ( Hustler magazine) will probably be impossible. But of course, there will always be people who insist on doing so.

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  14. ORIGINAL QUESTION: When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?
    Obscenity is in the eye of the beholder. There is no precise, defined line between “obscene” and “not obscene”. It’s merely a matter of opinion or, at best, consensus.
    For example, art displayed in the Orvetto Cathedral, painted by Luca Signorelli:

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

    Is this obscene? Of course not. Most people would say, absolutely not obscene.
    Here, on the other hand, are a group of men (naturally) demanding someone be executed for “blasphemy”. Is this a photograph of an obscene act? In my view, it absolutely is; a hideous, revolting act of obscenity:

    When does a work of art stop being simply an obscene image?

    So you see, it is not always so easy to tell one from the other. Neither do we all agree upon which is which. This is why obscenity laws can be very problematical, depending upon who passes them and what their agenda might be.

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  15. You’re asking “what is art” or “when does a drawing (of anything, something obscene is a good choice) stop being a mere sketch and become art”. Justice Potter Stewart had the answer back in 1964. “I’ll know it what I see it” and I think that still holds.
    The best answer I can conjure is that an obscene image becomes art when I think it’s art. Of course with the added caveat that my art my be your obscenity and visa versa. I think Margaret Keane’s bug-eyed little girls are kitsch at best, bordering on obscene. Some people think they’re fine art and hang them in their living rooms

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  16. It rather depends on the location in the world where the art is being judged. The depiction of nudity involving sexual activity, upsets the narrow minded who grew up being told it is obscene and in a society which has developed laws that tend to support and enforce such opinions.. Whereas the same art, being exhibited in a primitive or tribal area location would be greeted with wonder and appreciation as depictions of natural life, by people whose minds are not clouded by puritanical or Victorian hypocrisy which secretly enjoys such images while denying it as public art.

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